While we were on our way to Tel-Aviv during a school trip in 2019, the Palestinian driver of our rented bus suggested that we could go buy some good dates right across the border between Israel and the Westbank. With hesitation but curiosity my teachers and our German-Israeli tour guide agreed. We crossed the border to Palestine and after another 20 minutes of driving through random narrow streets, our tour guide started to get nervous.
Even though I wasn’t very well-informed about the Middle-Eastern conflict back then, it was impossible to oversee the broken houses, the unstable streets and the growing anxiety of my teachers and the guide, the deeper we were driving into the territory. Back then, I didn’t understand their tension. To me it just looked like another poor neighbourhood, not at all like in the CNN reports about Palestine, where there is blood everywhere and mothers cry for their dead children.
Long story short: In the end it turned our that we were cruising through Palestinian territory for half an hour there and back, so that us German rich kids could buy a ton of fresh dates at the store of our bus driver’s favourite cousin. No barbarians storming our bus, no religious fanatics coming to kidnap our women, just the friendly cousin of our bus driver who was happy that business was going well.
We hadn’t spent even an hour on Palestinian territory, but for my teachers it felt like an hour on grenades, and crossing the border back to Israel was our ticket to freedom. There it was safe, there it was pretty, there you had toilets with actual toilet seats. Even back then, it seemed hideous to me that these two nations, both of which were so sweet to us “Germans”, both of which sold such amazing dates and which lived basically door to door, felt such a deep hatred towards each other.
Seeing with how much distance and coldness the Israelis faced the Palestinians (and also the other way around), was almost painful to me, the fact that for them it seemed so obvious and indisputable that they were the good guys, and the Moslems across the border were the bad guys. Nonetheless, on the other hand I also wondered: would the date seller in the Westbank still be so nice to me if he knew that I‘m Jewish, and not German?
This is the memory that first came to my mind when I watched the documentary “The Devil’s Drivers” at the 24th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. This documentary, which was directed by Palestinian Mohammed Abugeth and German Daniel Carsenty, follows 6 years of the life of Palestinian smugglers. These smugglers drive Palestinian illegal workers, who can’t manage to obtain a working license for Israel, across the borders and are constantly followed by the Israeli army.
The message becomes clear quite quickly: The two cousins Hamouda and Ismail hate the danger of their work, the constant fear of getting caught, but there is no other way for them to provide their families with enough money. The Israeli army tries to interfere, even destroy a villages in their attempt to stop the smugglers, they set up Checkpoints in order to control every move of the Palestinian men. But more shocking than the happenings of the documentary themselves, is what directors Mohammed and Daniel show us through their cameras. Drought, dead soil, broken houses, bald trees and trashes that children use as playgrounds. The camera is right in the action, often shaky and unclear, but especially then I try to follow its every move. The things that I see, couldn’t be more different from what I remember Tel-Aviv or Haifa to look like, but when Hamouda is hugging and kissing his new-born baby, almost crying from happiness, I can’t see the difference between him and an Israeli father. The love is the same.
The whole movie is shaped by the thought that the Palestinians are trying to build up a life, sometimes having to go illegal paths, and the Israeli military destroying their attempts. It shows us, with its full intensity and emotions, just how different the lives are on Israeli and on Palestinian territory. However, the documentary’s intention is not to inform about the situation going on in the Middle East. It fails, or rather does not even attempt to show the complexity of the war going on between Israel and Palestine, and rather prefers to establish the Palestinians as the innocent victims and the Israelis as the evil conquerers. Even though there is a truth to that, this documentary is more of a megaphone for the voices of desperate, suffering civilians in Palestine, rather than a depiction of the ongoing war.
“Film it. Film it all.”, says Ali, who is looking down at what is left of his village, which was destroyed by the Israeli army. He is hoping that somebody will hear his suffering and the injustice he is experiencing.
The morning after watching the documentary, I decided to call my mother and tell her how, even though I considered it to be quite one-sided, I really liked what a raw insight it gave into the suffering of Palestinian civilians. Knowing that my family is Jewish (by heritage), the Middle East conflict was always a risky topic to talk about. However, while my father was mostly pretty radical about his views, my mother usually managed to take both sides of the conflict into consideration. Therefore, her answer during our phone call takes me quite by surprise.
“Yes, the poor Palestinians who are throwing bombs on Israel.”, she says in an sarcastic voice.
I’m slightly confused. I explain to her that obviously Palestine is far from perfect, which doesn’t change the fact that its people are suffering.
“Michelle, remember who your people are. “.
I’m in shock. My mother, an educated, tolerant and open-minded woman who despises any kind of nationalism, or even patriotism, is telling me to stick up for “my people”. When I ask her what exactly this country, but especially this government has done in order to deserve my support or my loyalty, her reply is:
“If, God forbid, anything ever happens to us, that country will be our safe harbour.”.
Nobody in my family speaks Hebrew. The only occasions that any of us have ever visited Israel was for vacations or school trips, we celebrate Christmas instead of Chanukka and my mother is a social worker in “social hotspots”, where most of the children are from Arabic countries and follow the Muslim religion. She is the one who raised me to put humanity over nationality or religion, not even considering that I was in Palestine more often than her. And yet, even she managed to engrave this “Israelis against Palestinians”- mentality so deeply into her mind, that she is not even seeking to change her mind.
It is easy to play the judge of moral from the other side of the fence. For Israel supporters all over the world it is much less challenging to point at the bombs and guns coming from there, instead of pointing at the destroyed houses and hopeless people. Guns and bombs don’t require any empathy or second thoughts, crying people and struggling parents very much do.
There is no good or bad sides in this war. I’m proud to be a Jew and I do think that Palestine is partially to blame, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing the dozens and dozens of mistakes and cruel actions that the Israeli government has committed.
“The Devil’s Drivers” was like a punch in my stomach: knowing reality is very different from actually seeing it. I think that if more Jews and Israelis, including my mother (who is still my biggest role model) were to watch documentaries like these, they would understand that of course Palestinians carry around a lot of hate and aggression towards the Israelis within them. However, that is because they are under the constant control and violence of a country that has much higher life standards than them, and it doesn’t change the fact that they are also just mothers, fathers and siblings who are scared for their families.
My genuine wish is that, the next time I happen to buy dates in Palestine, it doesn’t feel like a huge ticking time bomb made out of sand.